I’ll be completely honest, I was afraid to travel to Morocco. Call it irrational, call it ignorance, call it “American media syndrome”, etc. I didn’t know how an Islamic country (even in Africa) would receive me – an African-American, Christian, Female. I had a very uncomfortable experience on a crowded train in Istanbul and was haggled and hassled way more than anyone would want on that 8-hour layover and automatically associated Islamic culture with that experience. I was absolutely blown away by how incorrect my assumptions were – the people were hospitable, good-spirited and friendly, welcoming us with open arms, the crowded medinas didn’t make me feel any more unsafe than the NYC subway during rush hour, and the country itself was beautifully filled with color and texture and warmth. I will 110% travel back to Morocco for more.
We landed in the Tangier airport with little hassle and were off on a marathon adventure. Seven days of constant movement from Tangier to Chefchaouen to Fes to Merzouga to Marrakech (not to mention my pre and post-Morocco layovers in Copenhagen and Sweden). The trip really began when we landed in Chefchaouen “the blue city” nestled in the Rif Mountains of northwest Morocco. The magic is in the blue-washed walls, said to be a natural mosquito repellent and/or a symbol of sky and heaven in Jewish culture painted by those taking refuge in North Africa from persecution in Europe, depending on who’s telling the story. We got lost in the blue medina, hiked up to the Spanish mosque for the view and people watched in the Place Uta el-Hammam. The locals didn’t seem bothered at all by the presence of tourists and even knew many languages from interacting with different people. We made friends with some travelers staying at our hostel.
The drive from Chefchaouen to Fes was about 4.5 hours but seemed like an eternity because the seat my friend and I sat in had a leak in the ceiling so we crammed ourselves in the aisle for the whole ride. When we arrived at the CTM bus stop, we hailed a cab driver in the station and together our broken Spanish worked in contacting our Airbnb host. He then pulled up in a shoddy van and we thought, Is this the end? Though we almost hit two women crossing the street and nearly got hit by a bus, we made it to our Fes Airbnb, that gave us all the 1950s France meets Marrakech vibes we dreamed of (?). We only had 12 hours in Fes so we were off on a tour of the city with a local guide, Ahmed. With authority and grace, Ahmed marched us through the meandering streets of the Fes Medina, pointing out the different landmarks. It appeared that we were going in circles but such are the streets of the Medina. I kept thinking how we’d find our way back to our Airbnb without Ahmed…
As we would soon realize, our tour in Fes was not complete without visiting each and every one of Ahmed’s friends who owned a shop in the medina: We visited an old palace house where a woman was mesmerized by my friend’s beauty, a jewelry and lamp shop where I bought a necklace and earrings from a man named “Nice Boy” (translated into English), a carpet store where the workers presented all different types of hand-crafted textiles ranging from 6 months to 6 years (yes, 6 years sewing a carpet), a beauty/spice shop where we witnessed the pressing of argan oil seed by seed and the amazing scents of saffron, coriander and ras el hanout tagine spice, a leather tannery where animal skin is soaked in cow urine and pigeon poop and naturally dyed before shipping to a factory for production, and, finally, a fabric shop where we put on different scarves, djellabas and caftans and snapchatted like there was no tomorrow. We ended the night eating dinner on the rooftop of Cafe Rsif Chez Benyahya with a view of the city and the Djemaa el Kairaouine, the second-largest mosque in Morocco.
The next morning we started a 3-day road trip with the Sahara Desert Crew making our way through Ifrane – the “Switzerland” of Morocco, Azrou – a Berber village with massive cedar forests and friendly Barbary apes, the Tizi Ntalghamt Pass and the Ziz Gorge with amazing views of the High Atlas Mountains, Errachidia (where the terrain began to look like the desert), Erfoud, Rissani, and Merzouga – Sahara Desert. I sat in the front seat and took everything in (as well as hundreds of pictures) and moved to the sounds of Beyonce blaring from the speakers, a request from one of our backseat guides.
When in the Sahara Desert, we were led on camelback to a campsite in Erg Chebbi by a Berber camel man named Ali. During a short stop for pictures, Ali said something in Spanish (maybe perfecto or exacto) and I asked, thinking nothing of it, ¿hablas español? and he did! This changed the game for me. His English was great up to this point but I then realized I could practice Spanish with him. Since I was on the lead camel, I got a chance to ask him all of sorts of questions – How old are you? (27, near my age), Where are you from? (the desert, a true nomad), How often do you do tours? (once a day for the past 6 years), How did you learn the languages you speak? (from interacting with tourists), How many languages do you speak? (Berber, English, Spanish, French, Italian, Portugues, a little Japanese and Chinese), What Ivy League school did you attend? Just kidding. I didn’t ask that but I did ask him how he learned all of this and he replied, the school of life (how do I apply?). I then asked what the most important lesson of the school of life is – conocer la gente, to meet people.
Being able to connect with Ali from a language perspective fascinated me. It’s what I want my life to be, connecting with people in their language, in their culture and on their terms. After dinner and some drumming at our desert camp, we asked Ali even more questions. He brought up the tradition of marriage and how he’d prefer it to be different in his culture and that it’s tough to see someone and know, before truly knowing them, that they are the one for you. This was one of many points we agreed on as we chatted below the stars that night. Sometimes we travel to experience something so very exotic and different from our reality and are brought back down to earth when we realize that at the core of it, we’re all human with essentially the same flaws and needs.
After a tranquil morning watching the sunset over the desert dunes, we continued on our road trip through Rissani, Tinghir, Todra Gorges – the highest and narrowest gorges in Morocco – and Dades Valley (told you this was a marathon). We stayed overnight in the Hotel Panorama, where we met more Spanish-speaking, drum-playing Berbers and even were taught how to perform a few “magic” tricks. Special shout out to Ibrahim for the wifi hotspot at the hotel 😉
The next day we were off to Marrakech by way of the thousand Kasbah route: the Rose Valley, a visit to Skoura Oasis with its authentic 17th-century Kasbah, a visit to Taourirt Kasbah – the former residence of the Glaoui, the Lord of the Atlas, Ouarzazate – the Hollywood of Morocco, Aït Benhaddou – an ancient Kasbah listed as UNESCO’s heritage site where many famous movies were filmed, and the zigzagging roads of the Tizi n’Tichka pass.
When we arrived in Marrakech, we were ready for shopping. We headed straight for the Medina towards Jemaa el-Fna – the large public square with entertainers and street food vendors. After hearing shouts of “I have best price” and “cheaper than free”, we knew that this is where the hassling would begin. However, it turned out to be pure humor as opposed to harassment. Here are some of the names we were called:
- Mama Africa
- Nikki Minaj, Janet Jackson, Beyonce, Spice Girls, Oprah
- Chocolate, Coffee Cream, Black Cumin
- Obama Family
- America, Africa, United States, Jamaica, Spanish…
and the best of them all…
- I’ve never seen like you before!
I had a million places starred on my Google maps for Marrakech but there was too much to see and do and not enough time. We ended up eating dinner at NOMAD (and coming back a second time because of the hospitality and atmosphere), taking a cooking class at Riad Jona recommended during a brief encounter with the French owner in his shop, Les Sens de Marrakech, maxin’ and relaxin’ in a hammam called Kosy Spa, taking too many pictures at the Majorelle Gardens (and being chased by a group of Chinese tourists wanting to take our picture), being inspired by the architecture of the Islamic college Medersa Ben Youssef, and connecting with a British and Bahraini tourists at Palais de la Bahiaa.
On my cab ride to the airport, I reflected on my experience: the fact that I could practice my Spanish, that tagine and mint tea became my new favorite foods, that the only sound in the desert is wind and flies, that an authentic caftan can cost as low as $7, that succulents and painted walls are the perfect combination, that Moroccan people are warm and hospitable, and that there can be true understanding in any language between you and someone the world apart. This is definitely a vacation for the books.
Where should I go next? Perhaps Berlin.
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